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Learning a new language shouldn’t be foreign to Americans

As I talked about education with Ukranian immigrant Yuliya “Julie” Usyk in her southwest Las Vegas home Sunday, I thought about “The Ugly American,” a political novel I read in the 1960s. It’s about the bungling of the U.S. diplomatic corps, whose linguistic and cultural ignorance allowed communism to spread in Southeast Asia.

The novel was published in 1958, when the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was in full force, and it created such a stir that the Peace Corps was established soon afterward, and American leaders suggested that foreign language training be stressed early in school. Soviet diplomats could speak the language of the countries where they were assigned.

Unfortunately, the idea of Americans becoming more proficient in foreign languages was just talk. We basically think everyone else should learn our language.

That’s arrogance.

Research shows that only 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English, compared with nearly 60 of percent of Europeans.

According to former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in 2008 just one quarter of U.S. elementary schools — the level when students best learn languages, research shows — offered foreign language instruction.

Usyk can’t understand why foreign language instruction isn’t mandatory in American elementary schools. Just 10 states require foreign language study for high school graduation. Nevada’s not one of them.

Of the Clark County School District’s more than 200 elementary schools, about a dozen schools offer a foreign language.

Usyk said she’s teaching her 22-month-old son, Matthew, both English and Russian, and he’s picking up both. She’d like him to learn an additional language in school.

“Children are sponges when they’re young. That’s when they learn languages overseas, ” Usyk said. “I’m sure he’ll be more marketable the more languages he knows.”

Though Matthew then said “da,” I couldn’t tell whether he was using the Russian word for yes or noting in baby talk that he was picking up his bat.

Be that as it may, Mike Barton, chief academic officer of the Clark County School District, agrees that young children, including preschoolers, pick up languages the quickest.

Studies show that learning a second or third language does not cause language confusion or language delay. In fact, Harvard researchers found that creativity, critical thinking skills and mental flexibility were “significantly enhanced” if kids learned languages at a younger age. The researchers say it’s harder for people to learn a new language after puberty.

“Funding is the reason we’re not offering foreign languages earlier,” Barton said. “We’d like to.”

But when it’s more difficult for students to learn a foreign language, American school systems, including those in the Las Vegas Valley, offer the most language training. Less than half of the 59 local middle schools offer a foreign language, while a majority of the 49 high schools offer some sort of foreign language instruction.

With what’s happening here mirroring the overall American experience, it’s no wonder so few U.S. ambassadors know the languages of the countries where they’re assigned. They’re the ugly Americans who go to a country and expect the natives to speak English.

I’m a prime example of what happens when you start learning a new language late. I took Spanish in high school and was so afraid of making a mistake — I thought everyone was laughing at my acne when I stood to recite — I never learned to speak it. To a child who isn’t self-conscious, learning a language is play time.

Usyk said that when she and her husband, Brian Genco — they own Lou’s Diner on Decatur Boulevard — travel to a foreign country, they always try to learn as much of the language as possible before their visit.

“It’s a sign of respect for the country you’re visiting or living in,” she said.

Analysts say a lack of language training still hurts the United States as it tries to win friends around the world.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head,” said the late statesman Nelson Mandela. “If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in the Nevada section and Monday in the Health section. Contact him at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter.

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